There are many, many odious and hateful things that the conservative commentator Ann Coulter has said over the years. But since the issue at hand is freedom of speech, I'm only going to mention one. In the early 2000s (and after 9/11) Coulter said, “My only regret with Timothy McVeigh (the Oklahoma City bomber) is he did not go to the New York Times Building.” Her declaration of jihad against a free and functioning news media makes her an unlikely cause celebre for the issue of free speech. But that's how it works. If you don't defend those you truly despise, you're not really for free speech.
Coulter may or may not be speaking at the University of California campus at Berkeley at some point between now and early May. The status of the event is very unclear -- as this story explains -- but what is clear is that university officials aren't convinced they can keep the peace if the conservative firebrand does show up. A planned Berkeley speech this winter by the even more execrable (and perverted) Milo Yiannopoulos was cancelled amid violent clashes. No one looks good here.
But that bottom line is that increasingly students and their allies -- acting in the name of a kind of progressivism -- have a goal of going beyond simple protest, to completely shut down conservatives speakers and prevent their talks. I think Coulter engages in a form of hate speech and that many forms of protesting hate speech -- signs, turning your back, trying to pose tough questions, or rallying outside and presenting the alternate point of view -- aren't just good but necessary.
That said, if a campus group like the young Republicans invites her to give a talk, Coulter has a right to give that talk. University officials -- who've been a big part of the problem in this particularly situation -- need to be a part of the solution. The trend of shutting down campus speakers is wrong, period. And in the long run, it will only set back the just causes -- such as ending racism and social injustice -- that the student activists support.
I'm like the 847th person to point this out, but Berkeley is probably the most ironic place in America for college free speech traditions to come under assault. In 1964, students there all but initiated the 1960s era of campus protest with a lengthy campaign that was called -- wait for it -- the Berkeley Free Speech Movement.
The FSM created a real American hero in leader Mario Savio, who said of the modern university: "There comes a time when the operation of the machine becomes so odious, makes you so sick at heart, that you can't take part, you can't even passively take part, and you've got to put your bodies upon the gears and upon the wheels, upon all the apparatus, and you've got to make it stop." But arguably the greater heroes were the hundreds who joined Savio in resisting efforts by university leaders and the police to intimidate them and shut the protests down. This was 1964. Young people weren't used to standing up to The Man. Yet.
It's almost forgotten what triggered the protest. Students had been blocked from setting up tables on school property to promote efforts to end racial segregation in Mississippi and elsewhere in the Deep South. Because that's the kind of free speech that usually gets shut down at the end of the day. Free speech for the rights of the marginalized and the oppressed.
The Inquirer ran an excellent op-ed the other day by Penn professor Jonathan Zimmerman on the disturbing trends regarding free speech on college campuses. He pointed out that the movement for civil rights in this country would have been quashed without the ability to offer what were unpopular opinions at the time:
That's why every great champion of African American freedom in our history - including Frederick Douglass, W.E.B. Du Bois, and Martin Luther King Jr. - has also been a warrior for freedom of expression. "To suppress free speech is a double wrong," Douglass told a Boston audience in 1860, after a mob had broken up an anti-slavery meeting at the same location. "It is just as criminal to rob a man of his right to speak and hear as it would be to rob him of his money."
Look, I understand where the students who want to shut down talks by the likes of Ann Coulter are coming from. I agree wholeheartedly with their criticisms of her. I think my generation -- their parents -- became overly obsessed with a kind of warped definition of "safety" after 9/11 that may be somewhat to blame for sometimes absurd demands for "safe spaces." And their argument that "free speech" has been used by the privileged to put down the marginalized -- which I don't really believe is true -- is nonetheless hard to counter when it comes from someone who's been as privileged as I've been.
That's why I'd love to see civil rights stalwarts, both from the John Lewis/MLK generation and also of the newer variety, work with today's campus leaders to come up with a new paradigm for protest in the 21st Century -- one that manages to fight racism, prejudice and hatred more powerfully than ever, yet respects the ability of every person to say what she or he believes. A new Free Speech Movement. Right now, that sounds like a bit of a pipe dream -- but it's a critically important issue. Because things are a mess in 2017, and when the dust settles I have a hunch about who will lose the most rights here. It won't be the privileged.